TWO YEARS after Proposition 59 made access to government information a constitutional right in California and required those holding records to take the broadest possible position in favor of disclosure, the adage you need to know about the Golden State is this:

Bureaucrats can release any document they want. Unless, of course, they don't want to.

Then they'll just spit in your face and insist it's only raining no matter what the state constitution says.

In the fight for public records _ and make no mistake that it is a fight _ bureaucrats sometimes claim that keeping records secret serves the public good more than releasing the records.

Such a response ought to set off all sorts of alarms. When a bureaucrat says the public is being protected by government secrecy you can bet that the only thing that is really being protected is the bureaucrat's rear end.

That's exactly what appears to be going on at the state Resources Agency, which handles public records requests with a flippant arrogance and disregard for the public.

In July, the Times published a report on boating accidents in Northern California based on data collected by the U.S. Coast Guard from the state Department of Boating and Waterways. It's part of the Resources Agency.

Some of the data for the year 2000 were missing. The Times filed a request directly with the boat department for it, but the department claimed the information was secret _ a position that lawyers who specialize in public records say is blatantly wrong.


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One called it "absolutely asinine."

The boating department director, Raynor Tsuneyoshi, refused to be interviewed. It's spokeswoman, June Iijana, didn't return telephone calls.

The Times asked to speak with Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman, a boating safety advocate, but as the publication date of the story neared, his spokesman, Sandy Cooney, didn't return more than half a dozen telephone messages.

On July 5, the Times filed a public records request with Cooney for all records related to the newspaper's earlier request for boating document accident data.

The first response came on July 14 from the agency's assistant general counsel, Mary Akens. She set a deadline of Aug. 25 to release the records, more than seven weeks after the request.

The law gave them 10 days to release the documents. The request was routine. The constitution required agency bureaucrats to take the broadest possible position in favor of disclosure.

Akens wrote that she had already determined she would release the records but still set the Aug. 25 deadline for releasing them.

Resources Agency bureaucrats like Akens and Cooney take the position that they have 10 days to answer a request with a form letter and then give themselves lengthy deadlines to release the records.

What is really going on is the government restricting a news organization's First Amendment right to publish or broadcast news by withholding information. Access delayed is access denied.

Akens failed to answer an e-mail asking for the records more quickly. When she was telephoned, she refused to discuss the request other than to say, "I'm just doing my job."

Another phone message left for her was returned by Cooney, who coyly claimed the request was complicated, involved a lot of records and would take weeks to process.

Neither Cooney nor Akens responded to a request for comment for this column.

Finally, at the agency's arbitrary deadline, a smattering of documents arrived, including Akens three-page explanation of why more wasn't disclosed.

In it, she cited the reason that sets off the bells:

"The public interest served by not disclosing these records clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record."

She cited other excuses for keeping the records secret, including the attorney-client privilege. But who, really, is Akens' client? She'd say it is the Resources Agency. That's how they think.

But what about the people who pay the bills and her salary? Are they, or her fellow bureaucrats, the ones to whom Akens really owes the most consideration?

Akens also wrote something else in her letter, and if you care about public records access in this state it ought to give you a shiver.

The Times referred to "Prop 50" in its request, she said. She meant Prop 59, which ought to be cited in any request for records.

"The provisions of this law were incorporated into our analysis and do not change the legal basis for these decisions," she wrote.

Huh?

They honestly think they can ignore the requirement for openness and disclosure that voters demanded be added to their constitution?

But that's what she wrote.

That's what they think in Sacramento. You don't matter.

Peele is a Times investigative reporter and the winner of numerous awards for reporting on freedom of information issues. The Watchdog appears monthly. He invites reader questions and comments on public records and government access issues. E-mail him at watchdog@cctimes.com.